This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on December 23, 2022. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox each Friday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.
Given that he or she may be reading this right now, I’m not going to say which of my friends or relatives is getting a subscription to a pickle club for Christmas this year. But anyone searching for a last-minute gift in this late hour of holiday shopping would score serious points by opting for one the subscriptions offered by Santa Barbara’s own Pacific Pickle Works, which pumps out award-winning jars around the clock at a bustling factory on the Lower Eastside.
I’m a present-buying procrastinator, but to my credit, I’d actually decided to go with pickle-club-as-gift months ago. Of course, I didn’t actually do anything about it until a couple of weeks back, when I was stuck in my room with COVID.
After searching the internets high and low for a proper pickle service, I wasn’t satisfied opting for a club that’s run by a company that seems to do all sorts of clubs. And I wasn’t exactly confident that more specialized companies would deliver the pickle quality I hoped for, especially since most don’t list what kind of pickles might be coming. Plus, these clubs aren’t cheap no matter which one you select, so I wanted to choose wisely, because these jars should be tantalizing taste buds rather than taking up shelf space.
I’d already given a quick look to the website of Pacific Pickle Works, which has been crafting an ever-evolving range of sour, spicy, and otherwise intriguing products for more than a decade. Like many of you, I’ve been a fan since their inception, whether chomping on vinegar-soaked fennel bulbs and asparagus or adding Bloody Mary Elixir to my morning cocktails. I’ve tracked their growth and success for years, writing and/or editing the occasional article over the years.
But not seeing a club listed on their homepage, I reached out directly to owner Bradley Bennett, whom I’ve known for almost as long as he’s been making pickles, which started as a hobby back in 2001. He’s also a reader of this newsletter and emailed me recently about that French onion dip story.
Indeed, he had two clubs to choose from: the Gherkin, which is two jars four times a year for $80; and the Big Dill, which is four jars quarterly for $160. I went Big, but decided to do the pickup option and save $50 on the delivery.
“Let me know when you are coming to pick up and I’ll show you around the factory if you would like, since I don’t think you have been here before,” wrote Brad while confirming that the first club package would include the No Big Dill, Cauliflower Power, Unbeetables, and Jalabeaños.
I had actually been to the Lower Eastside factory once before, for a ribbon-cutting back in 2015 when the property was still fairly empty. It was actually the company’s third official home, following stays in a commercial kitchen on Milpas near Taco Bell and then in the school district’s kitchen at Santa Barbara High; both situations involved trading pickles for rent.
Located on the one-block stretch of Union Street between Nopal and Quarantina, today’s Pacific Pickle Works sits in the heart of a crossover neighborhood, where lingering residential properties intermingle with semi-industrial commercial enterprises just steps from the MarBorg waste processing facility. The scene certainly doesn’t fit the visitor bureau’s promotional pictures of palm-tree-lined shorelines, but these often overlooked areas are just as integral to Santa Barbara’s soul, especially for our entrepreneurial side.
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So this past Tuesday, with my pickle-loving son, Mason, in tow, we headed down to those crowded flats, picking up the wafts of vinegar as we wandered along Union past the La Tolteca Tortilla Factory trucks. We met Brad in the warehouse, which has evolved over the past seven years into a bustling factory, where about 20 employees trade shifts in making all manner of pickles on a growing assortment of machines. Most of the outdoor spaces are shaded by tent structures that protect towering pallets of glass, plastic, and cardboard, and the rear is packed with processing lines and storage containers that keep finished products cold and ready to ship.
Donning hairnets, we entered the kitchen to watch the team prepare the next batch of Brussizzle Sprouts as Brad explained the ups and downs of the pickle business. In addition to his own line of products, he’s also now creating pickles for a half-dozen other companies, including a major export deal with an Australian company. Apparently, American burger culture is big there right now, meaning authentic American-made pickles are a hot commodity.
Over the years, Brad has accumulated the tools he needs for the processing — including a time-saving labeling machine that he didn’t get until April 2021 — but also developed many of the systems himself to fit this increasingly tight space. “I literally just figured it all out,” he explained. Dealing with kosher, organic, and non-GMO certifications are another constant learning curve.
Pacific Pickle Works also leases a packing warehouse a block away on Nopal — which is where you can pick up pickle club shipments — and a storage spot in Ventura. Like many food purveyors who start in Santa Barbara or other smaller towns, Brad is constantly tempted to build something bigger in a cheaper locale like Los Angeles. But such a move would be daunting, costly, and possibly unwise, since the regional draw of the brand is a critical part of the story.
For now, he remains focused on efficiency, quality, and diversification, with a brand new condiment line and lower-priced pickle products in various stages of development. “Our plan is to keep improving cost structures and keep that kitchen monetized,” said Brad.
I’m pretty sure his horror stories of dealing with the cutthroat ways of grocery stores and distribution channels scared my son away from ever wanting to enter the retail food business, which Brad says is much more difficult than anything he ever dealt with in his previous software career. But then he gave us a massive jar of tequila-pickled jalapeños, which we cracked open as soon as we got back to the car. Like most everything Pacific Pickle Works creates, they were deliciously unique, with a slightly smoky but not too spicy kick.
Afterward, over a lunch of Tamar’s shawarma and falafel at Third Window, Mason summed up our visit rather succinctly. “That was cool,” he said, completely unprompted. Maybe I should get him a subscription too.
Pacific Pickle Works offers two pickle subscriptions as well as a variety of gift packs, all of which would make excellent holiday gifts. See PacificPickleWorks.com for the full lineup.